Q: What motivated you to write Inclusion and the Power of the Individual in the Teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe? What impact to do you want it to have?
Rabbi Sollish: I hope that the book inspires people to be more inclusive in every area of life. The reality is that we need to do more with regards to disability inclusion. Certainly, there’s already a lot that’s being done. But there’s so much more that each of us can do in our own lives and spheres of influence. The book presents a Jewish, spiritual approach and attitude to inclusion that directly drives how we set up synagogues, schools, and communities. I hope that this book can be a catalyst to continue the conversation and deepen our efforts to be more inclusive of all.
I was approached by Kehot Publication Society and the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative to write a book on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s perspective on disability inclusion. And I felt that this is a profoundly important subject to write about. The reality is that we all are in some way touched by disability, and the notion of having a Jewish and spiritual framework for inclusion is, I think, profoundly important.
Q: How would you summarize the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s approach to inclusion?
Rabbi Sollish: The Rebbe had a very unique approach to inclusion. First of all, the Rebbe was well ahead of his time. The Rebbe was speaking about disability inclusion at a time when exclusion was the norm. And his approach was that inclusion should not be considered an act of extra kindness, but rather something that’s natural and perfectly intuitive. The Rebbe’s starting point was that everyone belongs. Therefore, there’s no reason to be exclusive. The question to the Rebbe wasn’t, “Why be inclusive?” It was, “Why be exclusive?” That’s a radical shift. And that’s reflected in countless talks and conversations and letters from the Rebbe on the topic — all based on classic and spiritual Jewish wisdom. Inclusion ought to be perfectly obvious, natural, and intuitive to us.
Q: What did you discover while researching and writing the book that surprised you the most?
Rabbi Sollish: I think what surprised me the most was the Rebbe’s response to Dr. Robert Wilkes, a leading psychologist and social worker at Coney Island Hospital. Dr. Wilkes asked the Rebbe in 1979 for guidance as to what is the best type of setting to care for individuals with intellectual disabilities. And the Rebbe essentially responded that the question is based on a faulty premise. When we’re talking about human beings, individuals, there’s no such thing as a “best,” one-size-fits-all answer. There is no such thing as a “best” camp or a “best” school — it all depends on the child. The same is true with people with intellectual disabilities. The “best” care setting depends on the individual and their particular needs. To me, this is a powerful and nuanced response. The Rebbe was teaching that we can’t lump people with disabilities together as a group. We need to recognize that each individual is exactly that — an individual — and seek to discover what is in their particular best interest.